The most popular of Belize’s offshore cayes, Ambergris has been defined as the capital of carefree and casual. A popular tourist motto reads “No shirt, no shoes, no problem” and that is true to the island’s sandy streets and laidback atmosphere. There are daily flights that reach the island in 15 minutes and boat service (about one hour) from Belize City. The most popular activities in the island are diving, snorkeling, sailing, fishing, and trips to the Lamanai and other Maya sites in the mainland. Resorts run the gamut, from small budget hotels to superior properties.
Bordering with Guatemala, Cayo District and its main city of San Ignacio offer pretty much everything you expect from a tropical destination. There is the Macal and Mopan Rivers, ideal for kayaking and canoeing, the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, El Pilar and Caracol, the Mountain Pine Ridge National Park with its caves, rivers, cascades, and towering forests, and quaint lodges that offer excellent accommodations and service in a natural environment. Activities in the area include swimming in natural pools, canoeing, hiking, bird watching, river tubing, cave exploration, tours of the Panti Medicinal Trail, and visits to Mayan ruins.
Orange Walk, a large district situated north of Belize City, is a wild area dominated by deep forest, several Mayan ruins, and the largest bird list in Belize. Orange Walk Town, the main settlement in the district, is a mix of Spanish, Maya, Mennonites, and Chinese communities. Its main tourist attractions are the Maya site of Lamanai, situated on the banks of the New River and one of the most spectacular day trips from Belize City or Ambergris Caye, the ruins of Altun-Ha, its numerous Mennonite communities, and the more than 366 species of birds recorded, which attract visitors from all over the world.
Slithering down the coast like a snake, Placencia parallels the Southern coast of Belize for nearly 15 miles. On the western side, a narrow finger-shaped lagoon separates the peninsula from the mainland. Blanketing the eastern shore, a magnificent stretch of sun-drenched beach runs its entire length. The peninsula is dotted with small Creole and Garifuna communities such as Independence, Seine Beight or Placencia Village. Placencia is a paradise of peace and tranquility, carefree and laidback atmosphere. Popular activities include excursions to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s first jaguar reserve, boat trips on the Monkey River, great for wildlife observation, search for manatees in the lagoon, visits to the Mayan ruins of Lubantuum, or going for a full day of snorkeling, diving, or sailing in the more than 40 nearby cayes.
DIVING IN BELIZE
Just off Belize’s 175-mile coastline is the second-largest barrier reef in the world, along with a network of over 200 coral cays and atolls. Belize offers more dive sites one can count and a never-ending beauty of fish life, coral variety and interesting underwater landscapes to view. Typical for the second-largest barrier reef in the world (First is Australia’s) are the canyons that stretch out from west to east and sometimes create tempting swim-throughs and caverns. Depth ranges on the barrier are between 50 and 200 feet of water. Soft and hard corals and many different species of swimming and crawling marine life such as the Nassau grouper, angelfish, lobster, stone crab, moray eels, and rays can be viewed. Sightings of large creatures, although not so frequent, do occur. All reef sharks, nurse shark, whale sharks, loggerhead turtles, and manta rays are spotted occasionally.
Inside the reef, the water is shallow and sandy. The busy surface traffic makes snorkeling both impractical and dangerous. However, once you reach the reef it fills your vision: shallow, well-lit water with a myriad of corals and fish in bright iridescent colors. On the seaward side of the reef, the coral drops down to a ledge, which can be up to half a mile wide before it drops off into the deep blue waters of the Caribbean. Here pelagic fish abound.
Many of the natural circumstances, which contrive to reduce underwater visibility, do not exist in Belize. It is because the reef is between eight and 16 miles offshore (except at Ambergris Caye) that it is not affected by river outflow and rainfall washing off the land. With very few exceptions, such as diving close to mangroves, the underwater visibility is always at its maximum for anywhere in the world-165 feet. Beyond this distance the water is simply blue. The effects of storms elsewhere in the Caribbean can, however, sometimes reduce the visibility to between 65 feet and 100 feet.
The strong currents created by large tidal ranges are non-existent in the Caribbean.
The water temperature is fairly constant throughout the year and is generally in the mid to high 70'sF, and can even reach the low 80'sF. A lightweight lycra body suit, more for protection from coral abrasions than for warmth, is a good solution. For those needing more thermal protection a 1/16th inch suit should be enough.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Situated within the shadows of the Maya Mountains, the sanctuary encompasses some 100,000 acres of tropical moist forest that rises from 300 feet above sea level to approximately 3,675 feet at the summit of Victoria Peak. The water runoff from the surrounding mountains provides the Cockscomb Basin with a plethora of creeks and streams. These come together to form the headwaters of some of Southern Belize's major rivers such as the Swasey, the Sittee and South Stann Creek. Originally established in 1984 as a reserve to protect a large jaguar population of jaguars as well as other resident wildlife, the sanctuary is also known as "The Jaguar Preserve". Since, the sanctuary is home to numerous members of the cat family (puma, ocelot, jaguarondi, margay), there is also a large population of mammals (peccary, paca, brocket deer, tayra, otter, coatimundis) and more than 300 different species of birds to support the food chain. The most important feature about Cockscomb though, is its trail network, the most extensive of any reserve in the country. The River Overlook and Warrie Trails are usually the best for wildlife.
Mountain Pine Ridge
The Mountain Pine Ridge is 300 square miles of forest reserve that is south of the Western Highway in the Cayo District. Access to the reserve is via the Chiquibul Road from Georgeville or via the Cristo Rey Road from Santa Elena Town, just east of San Ignacio Town. The Mountain Pine Ridge is home to the Hidden Valley Falls (1,000 Foot-Falls), the Rio On River, the Rio Pools, and the Rio Frio Cave and Nature Trail, as well as numerous small streams and waterfalls. Besides offering magnificent vistas, the cooler temperatures, along with a refreshing swim, can provide a welcome respite to the travel weary tourist. For those who are going to the Maya Ruins at Caracol and/or the Chiquibul Rain Forest, the Mountain Pine Ridge offers a very picturesque drive to your ultimate destination.
Altun Ha (Stone Water)
The ruins of Altun Ha are located near Rockstone Pond Village in the Belize District. The entrance to the ruins is approximately one mile from Mile 32 of the Old Northern Highway. Altun Ha, the most extensively excavated ruin in Belize, was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period and also an important trade center, which linked the Caribbean coast with other Mayan centers in the interior. The ruins consist of two major plazas, over 13 temples, and several residential structures. Seven tombs have been found and excavated within the main temple at Altun Ha.
Caracol (The Snail)
The largest Mayan site in the country is located in the Vaca Plateau, approximately two hours from San Ignacio. Caracol is one of the largest sites in all of Mayandom, and the largest in Belize. The center of the site has about 20 major plazas surrounded by temples, the largest of which is known as Caana, which rises 145 feet above the forest floor and offers a commanding view of the surrounding forest. Since Caracol is located in the Chiquibul Rain Forest, there is a plethora of flora and fauna to enhance the true beauty of this magnificent Maya center.
Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile)
Lamanai, one of Belize’s largest ceremonial centers, is located on the banks of the New River, two hours north of Belize City. With one of the longest occupation spans in the Maya World, Lamanai has been continuously occupied for over 3,000 years. The site features over 700 structures dating from the Classic and Pre-Classic periods including pyramids, ball courts, a museum, two 16th-century Spanish churches, and a 19th-century sugar mill. In addition to its archaeological content, the boat ride along the New River offers the visitor a great opportunity to enjoy the beautiful flora and fauna of the surrounding tropical forest.
Lubaantun (Place of Fallen Stones)
Lubaantun is located in the Toledo District, in the south of Belize. Built in the Late Classic Period, Lubaantun is the largest ceremonial center in this part of the country. Consisting of 11 major structures, grouped around five main plazas, the ruin is unique in that it was built entirely without the aid of mortar. Lubaantun is also known for the discovery of a mysterious crystal skull whose origin still is a topic of debate for archeologists.
Xunantunich (Stone Woman)
Xunantunich is located eight miles west of San Ignacio Town in the Cayo District. Xunantunich was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period. The site is composed of six major plazas, surrounded by more than 25 temples and palaces. The most prominent structure located at the south end of the site is the pyramid "El Castillo"(The Castle) which is 130 feet high above the plaza. Recently, a beautiful museum has been built on-site. In order to reach the site, visitors must take the ferryboat across the Mopan River.